Finding Political Intent at the MFA

Political Intent at the MFA
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The "Political Intent" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston will close on July 30th 2017.

Patty Chang’s voice rings through the gallery: “When my aunt died, I got a plate. It was the kind of plate with a color photo printed on it in a poisonous ink that you couldn’t eat or else you’d die too.” Past Andy Warhol’s two paneled “Red Disaster,” past Jenny Holzer’s LED signboard, blaring “DREAMING WHILE AWAKE IS A FRIGHTENING CONTRADICTION,” is Chang’s grainy image in a small television screen. The performance artist carves into her white bra, revealing a cantaloupe strapped to her left breast. While reciting her story, Chang slices the flesh, scoops out the seeds, and spoons the fruit into her mouth.

This is “Political Intent,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts composed of work by eight women from four continents. “Political Intent” opened last fall during the heat of the 2016 presidential election, and though the timing and name would suggest its inspiration was politics at large, its curator Jen E. Mergel ’98 said otherwise.

“It wasn’t about the American presidential election or the system. It was very much about the politics of dynamics of power that we all engage with—with every decision we make, in every interaction, everyday,” said Mergel. “Who do you listen to? Who do you respect? Who actually has or is in a position to make the final decision? These are all political decisions.”

In fact, the roots of “Political Intent” date back to 2012, when the Guerrilla Girls—a feminist activist artist group based in New York—visited the MFA to do a “weenie count” of the number of male artists and announced that women artists were underrepresented in the museum. The group parked a billboard in front of the MFA that said “Do women have to be naked to get into Boston museums?”

Mergel praised the protest art at the time, and even included eight Guerrilla Girl posters in “Political Intent.” “For me personally, as a curator, it was an opportunity to show great work by women,” said Mergel on curating the exhibit. “To show much how much we had done with our collecting since the Guerrilla Girls had come.”


One of the Guerrilla Girl posters is pastel pink with curly script. It reads “Dearest Art Collector, It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately. All our love, Guerrilla Girls.” At the top of the poster, a drawn flower with a frowning face lies on its side.

“The exhibition highlights work by women that galvanizes the radical liberation of women and women of color,” said Tufts professor Danielle J. Abrams in an emailed statement. Themes of race, gender identity, and sexuality are frequent subjects in “Political Intent.” Andrea Bowers’s “Goddess” for example deals with ideas of trans rights and sisterhood, and features a set of dark brown wings, made of turkey and goose feathers. “The sculpture’s wings are a route to ascension,” said Abrams. “Wings can also enfold those who are most vulnerable. When there is misogyny, violence, and injustice, wings can provide asylum.” From the wings trail multicolored ribbons with embroidered slogans like “TRANS LIBERATION IS WOMEN’S LIBERATION” or “SISTERS BE STRONG.”

“It’s very relevant, and it’s needed,” said Justina A. Crawford on “Political Intent.” Crawford is a Manager of Lectures, Courses, and Concerts at the MFA, and has organized panel discussions based on themes found in “Political Intent.” “It’s great that we get to use that as a springboard for topics that our community can then reference and talk about.”

Though “Political Intent” was not directly inspired by current events, it remains more relevant than ever. “In times of tension or when expression feels threatened or when understandings of the truth are called into question, I do think that art that engages with those issues head-on is more important than ever,” said Mergel. “That’s not to discount other types of artmaking that focus on different areas. I do think that there’s great urgency and relevancy to pay attention to art that’s showing us or exposing us to forces in society that may not be visible.”

“Political Intent” will close July 30, 2017.

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.


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